Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture 
By Anthony Esolen. 
Regnery Gateway, 2017/2022.
Paperback, 256 pages, $16.99.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Folks.

In an age of political correctness and guarded speech, Anthony Esolen’s writing strikes one as wonderfully keen, timely, and true. As one reads Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, one is carried along by the marvelous originality and courage of an author who is shining a bright light on our age of declining standards of learning, labor, and social relations. In the end, what Anthony Esolen describes, in a manner that reminds one at times of Chesterton, Orwell, and Naipaul, is the loss of immediacy and thus the loss of humanity in our affairs. As the author makes clear, we now face a choice between further enslavement or the restoration of purposeful life as it existed in the past. 

Out of the Ashes provides remarkable insights into the current state of American culture and compelling suggestions on how to revitalize it. In order to fight the straight-jacket of “diversity, equity, and inequality,” one must begin by examining the use of our language, which has been corrupted by political cant. The tendency to revert at all times to concepts of race, class, and gender has robbed us of the ability to speak in a meaningful way about actualities such as work, family, experience of nature, and other “human things.” The foundation for rebuilding America is the recovery of meaningful speech and writing. 

The recovery of language is especially important in restoring education. At one point Esolen pictures education as it was a century ago in a small, one-room schoolhouse in Nova Scotia. Much of what was good about that education—the focus on useful topics such as mathematics, geography, biology and grammar—has now been supplanted by courses on sexual education and ethnicity accompanied by a lowering of standards in subjects that count. One can hardly be said to be a high school graduate unless one possesses at least a basic set of skills and knowledge, yet, according to a 2016 study by the British Council, only 30% of British high school and university graduates had been taught Shakespeare. The numbers for American students are presumably lower. 

Stepping back into that bygone era of the one-room schoolhouse, we would be astounded by the differences, not least of all in moral sensibility. “We are witnessing here not a different way of doing something that is still done now,” Esolen writes. “We might as well be walking into another world entirely.” It is not merely so in terms of politicized topics that now dominate the curriculum; it is also those rewarding forms of study that are now crowded out or explicitly excluded including literary classics (actually reading Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, and the major modern authors), history (with an emphasis on names and dates), foreign languages (including Latin and Greek), gender specific sports (with plenty of contact sports for males), and direct experience of nature. 

These curricular problems are only compounded at the university level, but these are so familiar that I need not delve heavily into them. There are, of course, exceptions, and Esolen lists them, most of them small colleges including, among others, Hillsdale, Saint Vincent, Grove City, Bryan, and Houston Baptist, that “tend to concentrate on the liberal arts, in a way that would now be called ‘classical.’” At these colleges there are dedicated faculty members working to reverse the corrupt teaching that prevails in much of American education. 

Out of the Ashes offers some striking insights into the damage caused by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its aftermath. Once again, Esolen asserts that we now occupy a different world entirely than that of our ancestors and that it is necessary to repudiate the recent past entirely. This includes not just the increased sexual freedom but much of what is called “women’s liberation” as well and, more recently, the tendency to view differences in gender as “socially constructed.” At this point the author offers an extremely useful discussion of the natural basis of traditional gender roles and of the part that they play in the spiritual health and stability of society. Esolen points out that in all cultures over thousands of years of recorded history, men and women have chosen separate roles and engaged in different forms of expression. It is difficult to argue that these distinctions were socially constructed and not the result of fundamentally different natures. 

Esolen finds that though both manhood and womanhood are the product of natural differences, both must be nurtured and that manhood is most at risk. Those institutions that once nurtured boys into men, such as gender-segregated schools, scouting, the YMCA (now rebranded as “The Y”), and the media (with the manly Roy Rogers and feminine Dale Evans replaced by the sexually ambiguous puppets of Sesame Street), are now so altered by ideology, and by the courts, that the development of manhood is often painfully uncertain. The idea that forcefulness is a quality to be associated with males has become suspect to the point that male celebrities now routinely strive to avoid the impression of strength. The reality, Esolen believes, is that with some exceptions “[m]en are bigger, stronger, more aggressive, and more tolerant of violence than women are,” and the suppression of this and other gender differences has proved harmful to both men and women. 

Traditional gender distinctions are especially important in terms of the parts men and women play in the family. Even in the case where a male chooses to be a “stay-at-home dad,” this is no substitute for a nurturing mother. Worse yet, according to the author, soulless daycare centers, where children are in the charge of strangers from an early age, cannot provide the nurture of loving parents. A woman who chooses to spend her days sitting in an office cubicle may be foregoing her true vocation, that of a loving mom in which she may express the “female virtues” (Esolen’s term) of gentleness, empathy, and domesticity. In cases where one must choose between advancement at work or domestic responsibilities, Esolen finds that one must put the family first.

Beneath the progressive assault on traditional gender lies a hatred of the nuclear family, and this because the family is the most important institution standing in the way of the state’s power over the individual. “The state grows by the family’s failure,” Esolen writes, “and the state has an interest in persuading people that the family can do nothing on its own.” In reality, the family, along with the church and schools properly understood, are crucial pillars of civilization. One need only examine the extent of crime and delinquency among fatherless young men to realize the extent of the damage. 

Along with faith and family, Esolen believes that a return to skilled labor would help restore our culture. At one point the author describes a lovely reed organ, the sort once routinely found in churches and even in private homes. These beautiful instruments required great skill in their production, not least of all in the painstaking cabinetry work. Why are these instruments no longer commonly found in churches and homes? There is of course the cost and the fact that learning to play such an instrument requires time and effort, but in the end it is a matter of priorities. A great deal of time and money is spent on smartphones, subscription entertainment, and other forms of electronics, none of which can be said to be very beautiful and much of which is ghastly in its content. “Maybe we draw near to the mark,” Esolen writes, “if we simply confess that we do not have beautiful things because we do not want them enough.”

Underlying the decline of skilled labor is a great change in priorities. The reed organ company that Esolen cites ceased operations in 1936 after some fifty years in business. What has taken its place are the makers of digital electronic keyboards, mass produced with plastic cabinets and keys at very affordable prices and marketed, in many cases, for children. What is lost is not just the beauty of the instrument but an appreciation and enjoyment of  traditional styles of music as well. Once again, Esolen displays a talent for expressing exactly where we are as a culture: 

We are stuck on the expressway from O’Hare Airport because the alternative, sitting still in our room, is too appalling. We lose the human things and replace them with inhuman things—anything at all, rather than nothing.

Russell Kirk would have called what is lost the “permanent things,” and he and Esolen would have found much upon which to agree.

Tlhis brings one to the crux of Esolen’s argument in Out of the Ashes. The decline he has diagnosed is not merely a shift in cultural tastes or even a change in values; it is a near total loss of what it means to be human. What we are losing is freedom in its many aspects: freedom of thought and feeling, freedom to worship and pray, freedom to educate our children as we wish, freedom to engage in personal contact with others, freedom to work with our hands and minds as we see fit. In its place there has arisen a vast bureaucracy of government, education, media, and law which regulates and prosecutes as it sees fit. Within this authoritarian culture, there is no more chance of true freedom in everyday life than there was in the life of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. We now feel that we are constantly under observation and subject to criticism should we differ from what is expected.

One should not forget that ultimately Esolen’s book is about recovering our lost humanity, and the author would be remiss not to offer a path to remediation. The “solution,” as Esolen sees it, is nothing less than a complete rejection of the secular and authoritarian culture in which we now live. To recover is, in effect, to return: to return to the human scale of the past, to local governance, to church and family as priorities, to direct human relations, and to meaningful work. In Out of the Ashes, those who pursue this recovery are said to be “pilgrims” on the road to a great restoration. Esolen and others of similar views are calling for a fifth Great Awakening in which nearly all of our governing laws, electronic culture, and sexual freedom would be replaced by spiritual reflection, contact at the human level, and self-governance. 

Esolen ends Out of the Ashes with an inspiring vision of what a reawakened society would look like. This future, which the author believes must happen “because the truth will out,” is an enticing land of religious faith, sanity, health, real things and nature, devoted marriages, wisdom, productive labor, and untroubled childhood. Although this world “will strike the newly awakened as wonders from another world altogether,” it will be entirely familiar to any student of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, or Conrad. It involves a return to a civilized order that prevailed for many centuries and in many lands and from which, at least to anyone who agrees with Esolen, the last fifty years must seem a diseased aberration. 

Like the many classical and medieval/renaissance authors whom Esolen has studied and the many he has translated, Esolen himself is a highly gifted and creative individual. But more than this, like the many who came before, Esolen is one who is unafraid and who speaks the truth of human experience. Every reader who shares my concerns about the increasing radicalization and abstraction of Western civilization should find Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture a rewarding volume. Esolen’s analysis of our condition is unflinching, and his prescription for renewal is ambitious, but as the author writes in his introductory chapter, “[w]hen your only choices are repentance or oblivion, you repent.” Out of the Ashes is a bold and insightful investigation of these alternatives.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

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